Corn cobs and briars dominate the pipe market by a wide margin, but one of the most traditional materials used to make pipes is meerschaum, so I’d like to take some time to give you some information about this interesting substance, and the smoking instruments made from it.
Meerschaum (which is often mistaken for ivory) is technically referred to as hydrous magnesium silicate. It’s not a rock, per se, but a mineral deposit, and it can be white, yellow, pink and other colors, if other elements happen to be mixed in with it. It’s found in Turkey and some regions in Africa. One of the old myths is that it’s compacted sediment made from dissolved seashells. This isn’t true, but it sounds good. Meerschaum is actually more closely related to sand than it is to seashells, which are calcium-based. Because it’s a mineral deposit and inorganic, it resists heat very well, making it perfectly suited for use as a pipe.
Among its other properties that make it useful is light weight. If you were to see a large chunk of meerschaum, you’d probably be amazed at how easy it would be to pick up. When a pipe maker wants to carve a pipe from meerschaum, they soak the block in water. After it becomes saturated, the block is the consistency of a bar of soap, making it very easy to drill and shape. This allows for very intricate carving with fine details. An application of wax and polishing will bring the pipe to a nice gloss. Modern meerschaum pipes usually have a nylon mortise fitted into the shank, with a nylon tenon that is screwed into the stem.
What makes meerschaum so exceptional as a pipe material is the absorbency and heat transmission capabilities of the product. Meers (as they’re often referred to) can absorb a fair amount of moisture, which generally leads to a dry smoke. Because it’s a mineral, it tends to easily transmit and radiate heat, which may make them a bit hot to handle, but cools the smoke quite a bit.
One of the nicest, but most problematic features of meerschaums involves coloring. With use, meerschaum will darken, and the pipe will take on an antiqued appearance. The reason that it’s problematic, though, is that handling the pipe can cause the wax to be removed by the acids on your hands, so fingerprints will show up
African meerschaum is no longer being made into pipes. Unlike Turkish meerschaum, African meerschaum is rarely white, and most of the pipes made from it are cream, dark red or black. This material is nowhere near as soft as the Turkish kind, and is a bit more durable.
Should you find a meer that’s cream colored with blackening around the rim that is very shiny and rather heavy, avoid it like the plague. They’re made from the scraps that have been powdered and pressed. They’re too heavy to clench, and they tend to gurgle because the pressed meerschaum doesn’t absorb moisture well, if at all.
Over at PipesandCigars.com, we’ve recently added a new brand of meerschaum pipes from Meerschaum Depot. They’re well-made pipes, and they feature some new designs and finishes. It might just be time to add one to your collection.